We set off in our chariot, a mid-sized bus that fits 20. It’s full on this cool and cloudy morning, but the excitement and anticipation would make you believe it was a beautiful, sunny summer’s day.
Our ride pulls up to the gates, a passage to the prairies. The gates are opened, then closed and locked behind us for good measure. The bus, at capacity, has passed the threshold as it creeps towards one of Manitoba’s most iconic figures.
FortWhyte Alive has been offering its bison tours now for a decade. It’s a chance for the public to view the mighty bison, the ninth-largest land animal, and one that is so intertwined with the province they live in.
"It’s evolved over the years, around a decade now" said Kalyn Murdock, group services
co-ordinator at FortWhyte Alive. "The 20-passenger bus has been a unique experience for about three years now. It has been growing over the years and this year is our best year yet."
It’s quite the attraction, too. On any given day, people from around the country and the world come to check out these prairie behemoths. My tour was made up of a few locals, with a mother and son from Washington, D.C., a couple from British Columbia, a group from Asia, and a young lady from Ottawa.
"It’s a neat experience, it’s very Manitoban, classic Manitoba," Murdock said. "The bison have a lot of importance, a lot of significance to us historically. But a lot of Manitobans don’t get to see them up close, so it’s a neat, unique visitor experience for not only the people from Manitoba, but for visitors from abroad."
Katrina, our guide, or interpreter as she is known, is well-versed in the history of the bison in Manitoba. Back in 1888, only 800 bison remained in North America. Manitoba had a staggeringly low population of eight. Today, through cross-breeding with cattle, Fort Whyte alone has upwards of 35, over four times the number Manitoba used to have as a whole. In total, more than 13,400 bison can be found in Manitoba located across 180 farming operations.
The herd at FortWhyte Alive is led by one bull, which is commonplace among bison. ‘Chalky’, as the staff have nicknamed him, stands out, not only due to his size, but also because of his whitened hairs on the top of his large, thick-haired head. Katrina points out that the greying is likely due to Chalky rolling around in the mud, another common behaviour of the bison. They freely and regularly roll back and forth on the hardened dirt.
The bison tour is also part of what FortWhyte Alive calls its "signature experience," a three-hour excursion that allows patrons to canoe like a voyageur, explore a Plains Cree tipi, step inside a one-room pioneer sod house and drink wild bush tea and eat bannock while relaxing by a campfire.
The bison safari costs $15 for adults and $5 for children and lasts approximately one hour, while the signature experience will set you back $40. Interested parties can contact Fort Whyte Alive to reserve a spot at 204-989-8355 or visit www.fortwhyte.org/ecotours